Questions and Answers with Jared Carter

In late 2001 I traveled to the town of Hopkinsville, in southwestern Kentucky, in order to give a poetry reading at the local community college.

The reading had been arranged by my friend Brett Ralph, the poet and singer, who was teaching at the college, and who is now a professor in the school’s division of fine arts and humanities.  Brett and I had become acquainted during the previous year at the Ropewalk Writers’ Conference in Evansville.

Hopkinsville turned out to be a most gracious and historic community. It was the birthplace of the American clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), considered by some to be among the fathers of the New Age Movement.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Hopkinsville was at the center of the Black Patch Tobacco Wars, which in turn served as the basis for Robert Penn Warren’s first novel, Night Rider, published in 1939.

Hopkinsville is the county seat of Christian County, which was the birthplace of Jefferson Davis (1808-89), a West Point graduate who served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, as U.S. Senator from Mississippi, and as president of the Confederate States of America.

One evening during my visit Brett kindly drove me out three miles east of Hopkinsville for a look at the Jefferson Davis Monument State Historic Site. The focal point of the site is a concrete obelisk, 351-feet tall (107.0 m), shown in the accompanying photograph.

The monument was clearly the high point of my visit. Completed in 1924, it is the tallest unreinforced concrete structure in the world. No steel was used in the construction. As one pour was completed, large chunks of limestone were left projecting up to connect it to the next pour above. It is also the third tallest obelisk in the world, behind the San Jacinto Monument and the Washington Monument.

But that was sightseeing. To promote my reading in Hopkinsville, reporter Tammy Dohner conducted an online interview with me for Our City, a news and arts weekly based in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee. Several years later I obtained permission from Ms. Dohner to reproduce that interview on my web site. I’m hoping she won’t mind if I now reprint it on Rushing the Growler.

I’ve taken the liberty of deleting her introductory paragraphs, which consisted largely of a rundown of my credentials at the time. But our questions and answers seem to have held up, so I thought I’d include them in a blog post. I overdid it, obviously, when she asked me about the books I had been reading. Nevertheless, here’s the verbatim exchange between the two of us:

Our City: Have you always been a poet?

Jared Carter: “Poet” would seem to be one of those traditional terms like “warrior” or “sage” that is best applied by others. When the question comes up, I suppose I think of myself as a journeyman writer who has had some moderate good luck in getting a few poems published.

OC: Where are you from?

JC: I’m from a small town in central Indiana called Elwood, which is about forty miles north of Indianapolis. It has the distinction of being the birthplace of Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate in 1940.

OC: What does your family think about you being a poet?

JC: I come from a family of artists and artisans – people who are good with their hands, people who sing, dance, paint, and weave. My writing seems to have fit right in with those traditions of craftsmanship and individual achievement.

OC: Do you remember your first poem?

JC: When I was in the fifth and sixth grades, I and the other students, with the help of our teachers, wrote little four-line poems and talked about rhyme and meter. There were numerous poems in our textbooks. Not everybody got interested in poetry; evidently I did. Later I was encouraged by a sympathetic high-school English teacher. My parents, too, were entirely supportive of my early efforts at writing.

OC: What inspires you?

JC: Well, you know the old saying attributed to Edison – it’s ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. Revision is terrifically important. I’m also impressed by a remark by Louis Pasteur – chance favors the prepared mind.

OC: What do you read?

JC: I keep reading American literature, although my tastes change with time. As a young man I loved the Southerners: Faulkner, Porter, McCullers, Warren, Welty, O’Connor, Capote, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy. I moved on to the Midwesterners: Twain, Cather, Dreiser, Anderson, Lewis, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. They have all remained important to me. Right now I’m re-reading both Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett. She’s my favorite writer at the moment.

When I was much younger I read all of the Russians in translation except Tolstoy. I don’t know why I stopped with him. Burned out, maybe. But recently I picked up Anna Karenina in translation and was overwhelmed by it. What a great novel! I’m hoping to find time to get started on War and Peace.

I haven’t gotten around to reading much by the great Austrians – Musil, Broch, Kraus, Canetti, and that crowd – but they’re on my list.

In 20th-century poetry I’m drawn to the work of Rainer Maria Rilke and Constantine Cavafy. In the earlier twentieth century, the trio of Yeats, Hardy, and Housman seems terribly important. Frost and Robinson are indispensable, along with Edward Thomas. In the 19th century I’m fond of John Clare and Walter Savage Landor. 

In the Romantic period my favorites are Hölderlin and Keats. Wordsworth, like Beethoven, is a force of nature.

I try to re-read the Iliad and the Odyssey in different translations every five years or so. (Lattimore’s still seems the best of the lot.) Flaubert, Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Kafka, Trakl, Li Po, Tu Fu, Po Chü-i, Borges, Akhmatova. Those are some particular favorites. I keep going back to them.

OC: Poetry sections in mass retail bookstores are usually small. Do you think the American public will ever embrace poetry widely again?

JC: The bookstores I visit – for example, Borders, or Barnes and Noble, here in Indianapolis – seem to me to have enormous poetry sections. More books of poetry than I could ever hope to comprehend. Walls and walls of the stuff.

The public library’s selection of poetry here in Indianapolis seems equally vast and authoritative. So I really don’t have any complaints about American reading habits. Poetry seems to be thriving.

OC: Do you feel that people in other countries appreciate poetry more than Americans?

JC: It depends on the educational values of the particular country. In France, students memorize the country’s classic poems and take examinations on its literature.

In the Balkans, and in the former Soviet Union, public recitation of poetry is an important part of the curriculum, and a form of entertainment in itself. Poetry has always been important to young and old in Ireland. All of these countries have strong national literatures.

If young people find reading poetry to be rewarding and entertaining, they’ll probably continue to read it after they grow up.

OC: Are you working on another book?

JC: I have a couple of manuscripts in the works. One is a collection of lyrics, the other a group of narrative poems. On some days I think about combining them. On other days I tell myself that if I finally get enough material together I can make two different books.

OC: What are your hobbies?

JC: I am an amateur musician – a pianist – although I do not play in public. In the privacy of my study I find my way through the beginning classical repertoire and I am familiar with the ragtime literature. But I am mostly a klutz.

The only recording I have made was for a lovely two-LP set called “Indiana Ragtime” put out by the Indiana Historical Society back in the early 1980s.

This beautiful set – which is still available, by the way [click here]– was produced by John Edward Hasse, who is now a musicologist with the Smithsonian Institution, and an authority on Duke Ellington.

Anyway, after I laid down the first track, I told Hasse that this was a demonstration of how not to play ragtime, which meant that all the selections that followed would sound wonderful by comparison. It was like hitting a sacrifice fly to score a runner from third.

OC: What advice would you offer to aspiring poets?

JC: Saul Bellow said it best: a writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.

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Credit: Dohner, Tammy. “Q&A with Jared Carter.” Our City 6:43 (7 November 2001) [Clarksville, Tennessee]: 10-11. Copyright © 2001, 2011 and used by permission.

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